Re-evaluating travel, as an industry and a lifestyle.
I love airports. The familiarity of strangeness. The soothing call of a flight attendant. The secret peek into the weird habits of families and the social deception of privacy that we all agree to create while seated mere inches from strangers. I love trains, too. Seeing the landscape swirl by, sloshing up and down the aisles and getting seated next to strangers in the dining car. Passing through fields next to little villages and capturing the backside of presentable small towns. And cars. AM radio stations, windows down, the endless variations of driving music.
Of course all of that is simply the appetizer to travel’s main course, its unexpected on-the-way destinations and everyday random encounters, the mysterious kindness of locals and unprovoked moments of epiphany. I love how travel sears history into my psyche, cementing small details that I would never have remembered otherwise. And I love the way it makes me think about what home means, too.
All of this is why I started writing about travel. At first, it was with the aim of publishing a travel memoir about the most complicated and non-touristy place I have ever visited, Bangladesh. Then, out of an abundance of knowledge and excitement for my own (former) city, Los Angeles, I decided to write hometown travel stories, too. In the past couple of years, I’ve parlayed this enthusiasm into some sort of career publishing stories in mainstream newspapers and magazines.
I made the leap because I’ve always been interested in exploring the absurdity of local politics as an outsider, unraveling multi-generational threads of art and culture, and discovering the deep truths of what we have in common through travel. But I began to learn that commercial travel writing is more about predicting where the next travel hotspot will be or collecting the best/weirdest/worst/scariest/funniest lists of things that reduce a place to one lowest-common-denominator that, let’s face it, is neither singular nor representative of said place. What most readers of “travel writing” seem to want is an author who will tell tourists where to go, what to do, and what neighborhoods are gentrified enough not to be dangerous.
I was horrible at thinking of these kinds of marketable angles. But I kept hanging on because there were still a few editors who actually wanted to know about politics, arts and culture rather than just the newest hotel. I’ve been lucky enough to write for a few of those editors, yet it’s hard to get by on these publications alone, so, inch by inch, I became seduced by some of the least interesting, and best-paid content out there. First, it was hotel reviews. Then, I started pitching round-ups. When I learned the difference between stories that were “too niche” (such as “Berlin Christmas Markets that Don’t Sell Consumer Christmas Gifts”) and “just generic enough” (ahem, “World’s Best Natural Hot Spring Spas”), I found the sweet spot. It was all downhill from there.
As I started getting invited by more PR firms to visit hotels or include their client in a listicle, I realized that education-free travel content for the lazy, unambitious tourist, is what travel writing is all about. Because tourism, for the most part, has become thoughtless and uninspiring. Many tourists care more about travel as a status symbol or a check on a bucket list than a genuine leap of faith into the unknown. It’s all about bragging rights and relaxation. And, I’m ashamed to say, realizing this was how to sell stories, I began traveling like this, too. Reading listicles. Packing short trips with Instagrammable activities. Looking at cheap EasyJet flights every month.
Then came Covid-19.
For one beautiful, blissful moment in time, the coronavirus pandemic brought all of that to an end. Suddenly local parks were the most exotic outing anyone could dream of. And more importantly, the environmental devastation wrought on so many destinations due to overtourism started to disappear. The waters of Venice were clear, as were the skies of Los Angeles. The beaches of Hawaii and the streets of Barcelona were free and open (although locals were still stuck indoors). The lions of South Africa came out to play on the road, too. Nature was poised to take over.
I’m framing this all in the past tense because this week, I’m starting to see the tourism machine turn its wheels again. Hotels and tour guides and airlines want to “return to normal” — or at least start talking about it. It’s time to start selling summer destinations and making lists again. And I’m afraid that this moment we were taking to reevaluate the future may be coming to an end.
So let me register my own dis-ease, my regret, my ambivalence to “normal.” I lament the ease of travel and its resulting pollution. The cheapness of AirBnB and the impact it’s had on rental prices in European cities. The thoughtless speed with which I myself have sifted through holidays since I moved to Europe. The number of times I have taken my cold or fever with me on a plane, simply because I felt it was my right — and my job — to go.
The way we’ve all become used to traveling is reckless because it’s so easy. The bucket list needs its checkmarks. The single-use shampoo in the hotel room is too nice not to take with me. The experiences I’ve go to pack into this week, curated by skimming dozens of webpages of “content” without absorbing any actual information.
After the pandemic, how can I approach travel and travel writing again? I’m ashamed of it. I can’t tell readers to fly across a continent for a quick weekend. I never want to contribute to a “where to travel next” list or list the top ten attractions of a place. I don’t want to help a tourist discover something they will only destroy. I can’t justify writing about travel as a consumer good.
But I still love travel. I still believe it is one of the best ways to encounter and empathize with those who are truly other.
How do I write about travel on the other side of Covid-19? Can I write about train and bus and car travel? About backyards and local parks with secrets of history? Can I somehow encourage informal homestays and visits to friends and long-term stays that emphasize finding the life and routine of a place?
If I’m ever to go back to travel writing, it must be in a way that forces travelers to participate in a local experience and not just consume the callous product of Tourism.